Monday, 30 October 2017

The Dark Tower - Britten on the Radio

Blythburgh Tower - photo Roger Thomas
The Dark Tower, radio drama from 1945, with texts by Louis MacNeice and music by Benjamin Britten, at Orford Church near Aldeburgh and now on BBC Radio 3.  How we appreciate something new to us says as much about ourselves as it does about what's being experienced.  My friend said, "Quite the best radio drama I’ve heard for a long time” since it's much classier than most radio dramas.  Radio Drama is a curiously English tradition : maybe you need to be immersed in the period culture it reflects.when postwar paranoia bred conformity, and people obeyed the voices emitted from the small box set  which connected households to the wider world.  My friend grew up in postwar Britain when ration books were recent memory, and the wartime mindset of insularity and unquestioning obedience still prevailed.  Since I didn't, I had to get over that cultural barrier first. But I'm glad I made the effort.  What you get depends on what you put in!

The introduction, recorded by Louis MacNeice for the original broadcast on 21st January 1946, gave me the creeps   Such emotional manipulation and doublethink! MacNeice claims he doesn't know what the story's about but he's kidding. He sneers at Reithian values at the BBC but gladly took the money.  Equally culpable.  That kind of deviousness springs from negotiating a world where lies mean more than truth. The very point of The Dark Tower, where everyone’s caught up in games of deceit.  Who's manipulating whom, and why ? Do they ever twig ? People who grow up being manipulated end up abusing others, without knowing why.  Beneath the archly stylized text, there's human feeling, however distorted.

Part of the reason The Dark Tower succeeds is Benjamin Britten, whose music operates on much deeper levels.  It's music on its own terms, far more complex than sound effects illustrating words.  Wonderfully sour passages, which throb menacingly. The Dragon is present even in Roland's childhood.  The Trumpet exists almost as entity, evoking ideas which words cannot express.  My friend thought of Pelléas et Melisande and its unearthly symbolism. As music, The Dark Tower works rather well - pity about the dialogue, some of which is dated. Blind Peter, for example, is a cartoon emigré. But people get screwed up in other places too, like boarding school, Oxbridge, the Church and the military.  Even in the romanticized Englishness of Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. What happened to Blind Peter could happen here, too. 

Compare The Dark Tower to Owen Wingrave, written for TV and broadcast in 1971, when TV was still a relatively new medium, and the media hadn't decided that culture wasn't for the masses.  The original film now feels dated, like Hammer Horror, since so much is made of the costumes and of the set. Get away from that leaden literalism, though, and Owen Wingrave is a much finer work than is sometimes assumed.   Please read HERE what I wrote about the TV Owen Wingrave some years back, There have been at least two new productions in recent years, one with Jacques Imbrailo singing the title role.  Like so many of Britten's other works, such as Curlew River  and the Church Parables (also heard at Orford)  Owen Wingrave works much better presented as stylized music theatre, closer to the spirit of medieval mystery plays than TV costume drama.  It could even  lend itself to sensitive staging, reducing the sourness of the text. 


1 comment:

kenpat said...

Nice article going to grab it on iPlayer.
There's also an Archive on 4 program "Inside the Dark Tower" available on the player as well.